Monday, August 29, 2011

An Argument for Nature

Sunday marked the end of summer here in Austin. Which is odd, as it is 111 degrees out today. But our much beloved public pool down the street is now officially closed and that means we are without our go-to afternoon activity until next June. Lots of other people love the pool apparently as there seemed to be an entire cafeteria's worth of junior high kids dumped into the deep end yesterday. My word, there is nothing more awkward than a 12-year-old boy. Trust that you will grow into those limbs and noses young men! And I am completely perplexed by this generation of tweenagers' embrace of the bikini. When I was a kid—oh God, not one of these stories—we wore big old Hanes t-shirts in the pool over our unflattering one pieces. We crossed our arms over our goofy chests and worried if our thighs rubbed together. I'm not sure girls today strike me as any more confident or self-possessed but they do like to lead with their midriffs.

When one of Ava's gymnastic camp counselors showed up she proceeded to love on Ava for a bit. After one last hug she moved on to her own crowd where girlfriends engaged in a shrill chorus of Oh-my-God-your-shirt-is-so-cute-I-love-your-hair-I-missed-you-so-much catching up. Ava looked after the big kids longingly and finally asked if she could walk over to the benches by the deep end to say hi to Marie one last time. We said sure, but come back when Marie looks busy (read: over it) or gets in the water. So Ava strutted over to a group of about 30 high-pitched 8th graders and half awkwardly/half arrogantly assumed the middle. Papa Dog and I wondered aloud what was making her more nervous: The proximity of the deep end or the manic energy of an unfamiliar group. We should probably go get her, I said. But when we looked over again she'd appeared to have just finished a hilarious story and was giving everyone double high-fives.

Eventually Marie brought Ava back to us in the shallow end, where we'd been studiously trying to avoid getting roped into conversations with anyone our own age, especially the chatty Norwegian fellow and his gropey daughter. Poor Ava, already cool at 3 years old*, was once again marooned with her dud parents. Have mercy on your dear Dad in his riding-up bathing suit and a Mommy who thinks it's amusing to arrange a cape of wet hair over my face and put my sunglasses on over it and then ask the family about our goals for the year ahead.

*As if! You're the one who picked out those new Chubby Checker sunglasses and continues to fight with your father that it is now safe to look directly into the Texas sun. Also, remind me when you're 11 that every time you left the house as a child you insisted that we all put our hands in the middle and cheer "Sunglasses power activate!" ("Form of a nerd!" says Dad.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

An Argument for Nurture

What a happy and relaxed family of three, delighting in the butterfly exhibit. Nerds to the core, y'all.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Hair Story

Yesterday I took my girl to the hair salon. It was our first trip together, and the man who ran the shop came recommended by another local adoptive mom. Ava is fairly tender-headed—though she's developed some real endurance over the last two years—and I wasn't sure how she'd hold up with a stranger taking hold of her tresses. So I really talked up our visit to Mr. Greg and how fun it was going to be and what a big girl she was and that I would pack not one but two lollipops in my shorts pocket.

Neither of us really knew what to expect. I think Ava imagined a delightful afternoon of lollipops and simply another person in her life cooing over her beauty. I assumed I'd act a little awkward and high-pitched while trying to gracefully turn down any and all suggestions of relaxing treatments. An hour would pass; we'd emerge back into the sunlight with Ava's hair perhaps done in a far better set of box braids than I could've managed in three times the amount of time. Hooray! Rite of passage, check.

Mr. Greg was awfully nice, a big booming type of a guy prone to loud claps. I liked him immediately. He got Ava up on a cushioned plank placed on the arms of a stylist chair and started feeling her hair. Her scalp looked great, he determined. Her hair was terrifically healthy. Well wasn't I feeling like the cock of the walk. Then he pronounced that her coil pattern is simply too tight to justify the length of her hair. Her hair would always be prone to matting and tangling and eventual dreading and we really should cut it. Cut it? But her magnificent puffs!

Cut it. It wasn't fair to me or to her, Mr. Greg said, not to choose a hairstyle that worked with her hair. She was not meant to have long hair. But, I stammered, you said her hair was healthy and my understanding is that in his (our?) culture black girls with short hair are frowned upon and wasn't this what I signed up for when I became Ava's mother? Her hair might be high maintenance but that was part of the deal. It was my job to spend time each morning detangling and conditioning. It's my job to spend a few hours on Sunday attempting a new style that will hold nicely for a few days. He told me to get a new job.

At this point I was really flummoxed and I could tell Mr. Greg was starting to tire of my hand-wringing. I hate it when people think I'm nuts. (And yet it happens so often!) He had me look at a bunch of pictures of black women with short hair (and I mean to the scalp short). Did I not think they were beautiful? Well of course I do, I said, but they're grown women who've made a style choice for themselves, not because their nervous white mama made them go short, and they've also chosen to pair their look with makeup and big jewelry. Well pierce her ears, said Mr. Greg. Pierced ears would cut down on people calling her a boy or teasing her or questioning her sexuality. At this point in the afternoon I may have been quivering as I watched Mr. Greg put two little marker dots on Ava's ears and take out his hydrogen peroxide and piercing kit. I stupidly telegraphed my discomfort by telling Ava that this was going to pinch. Well that really made Greg shake his head in disapproval. So now Greg was growing weary, Ava scared and I'm ashamed to admit that I was on the brink of tears.

"I really think I should talk to Ava's Dad about all this before I do anything," I said. He handed me the phone. I left poor Tim a message and sent him a text, hoping that he'd get a break on set in time to see my SOS. Just as Mr. Greg was about to shoot the gun into Ava's ear/my heart I managed to catch my breath and call cut.

Mr. Greg allowed himself a little groan of exasperation. It's just that I expected my job that day to be advocating for kind treatment of her beautiful, natural hair, I tried to explain. But somehow I found myself arguing the other position, while this black man was encouraging me to broaden my concept of beauty, culture be damned. Poor Mr. Greg, trying to do the right thing. I'm so grateful to him for disavowing relaxers and banning them from his salon. I'm so impressed by his determination to run a shop whose mission is to reteach a culture how to love and respect their natural beauty. He was tired of black women thinking of their hair as the enemy. When he stopped relaxing hair at his salon he said most of his clients were not just mad, they came to think of him as the AntiChrist. Now he specializes in Sisterlocks. Yes to all of this!

And yet what to do with my three year old girl? Girls have long hair. Black girls especially, or so was my impression. Shouldn't Ava have braids or twists or rows, no matter the cost or, I don't mean this, do I?, the demands put on her patience and pain threshold. And if I'm being brutally honest with myself, is my hesitation really just because I think A) she won't look as pretty with short hair and I get an inordinate amount of pleasure at the number of people who remark on her adorableness and B) black women will look disapprovingly at me for cutting her hair. Hmm, A and B aren't really about Ava at all, are they? I'm such a dick.

I paid my $25 consultation fee and promised Mr. Greg we'd be in touch again. I'm at such a loss of what to do.

Tim was so happy he didn't come home to his little girl with gold posts in her ears.

How I do love that puff.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

First trip to the emergency room

Last night Tim and Ava took Tulip for a walk after dinner. I decided to stay back at home so I could stumble around the internet in peace. One friend's status update bemoaned her child's vomiting; another her boy's broken arm. And literally just as I was thinking how we'd been spared any real scares I heard a siren-like wail crash up into the house. Tim was yelling for me, saying that Ava had taken a header on the street and that it was very bad. My body went dark and I shut my eyes very tight. No, no, no. But there she was in Tim's arms, sobbing for me, a golf ball sized lump already shiny on her forehead. "I want to go to the doctor," I remember groaning, my voice like a cat about to fight. "I want to go to the doctor, I want to go to the doctor."

Tim grabbed a pack of frozen peas, I put a popsicle in Ava's little hand ("open it for her," Tim had to remind me). The emergency room is just a two minute drive and during that time Ava became rather pleased with her popsicle and intrigued about our adventure. There was no line in the waiting room and we were sitting on a hospital bed within five minutes of arrival.* The nurses were lovely; the doctor a reassuring mix of stoic and good-humored as he checked for neurological damage and gave her a full body scan. Ava, magnificent child, was alert and focussed and curious. Doc pronounced her in good shape, though warned her lump would appear worse over the next 48 hours and her dinged up eye would most likely look like that of a fighter's in the morning. As we left she spelled out the bright red letters of EMERGENCY which made my eyes sting.

She slept in our bed so we could rouse her every 2-4 hours. I, a terrible sleeper on good nights, didn't sleep at all.

Somebody shoot me up nice with a horse tranquilizer because my heart just can't bear it.

The Morning After. (Lump is happily all but gone!)

A Day of Leisure and Rest.

*Only once did I seriously come close to losing it--when the lock-jawed, idiot-face receptionist who typed with one finger wouldn't tell my child her name. "What's your name?" Ava asked her. "What's yours?" she said. "Ava, what's yours?" my baby whispered. "What's yours?" the woman said a few more times. Lady, tell her your god damned name or this clipboard goes down your throat.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Purple Nurple

Ava Bekelech knows her letters now, or at least most of them. This means that we go nowhere without her stopping to cry out hello to the letter A! or the Big, Big B! etched into the sidewalk, an R! or an H! up on a road sign, or a P! and an E! on the computer keyboard. Every time she hollers out a letter my heart swells. To me, they are the answer to and purpose of everything. Letters add up to words which add up to ideas and stories. And now I have the pleasure of watching my young person see letters all around her, which means her world is getting ready to crack open wide. W!

This girl doesn't miss or forget a thing. Funny as all get out. Not funny like she says paghetti instead of spaghetti. Funny as in sophisticated imitations of people and spot-on comedic timing. She sees all, remembers all, questions all. So I keep waiting for her to point to her skin and point to mine and ask, without judgment, "What the heck?" I do ooh over her curls so much that she once assured me that perhaps when I am bigger and older I could have curly hair like her too.

Maybe the fact that we look so different doesn't seem worth mentioning because she sees families like hers fairly often. One of her Grandmas is black. Her best friend next door is a pale brown, with a white mom and an Indian father. But all the kids in her little pre-school class were white. (There was one other black boy, a foster child, who abruptly disappeared from her class one week. Seven months later Ava laid between Tim and I in a hotel bed, murmuring to herself before she fell asleep. "Darren went to a new school. That's okay. Darren went to a new school." Fucking A, life is hard.)

If we are on the precipice of words and reading, we are also edging up to the bigger and knottier conversations of our adoptive family. We talk about Ethiopia all the time, and she loves hearing about the morning we first met, and she seems to take in stride when I say that one day we hope to all go see her uncle again and her brothers and sisters too. I get lots wrong though. I mean shamefully wrong. I'm so clumsy in my attempts to talk about her birth parents. I remember reading recently about Angelina Jolie's comments about birth parents at a press conference for Kung Fu Panda 2. And yes, I acknowledge that everything about that sentence is ridiculous. Birth parents are happy words in her household, she said. Ooooooh-kay, as Ava would say, imitating my go-to response for her more outlandish pronouncements.

I'm still heartbroken that her first parents are dead. And conflicted about my joy at lucking into being her mother. I guess I blame that pain on not talking more about her first Mommy and Daddy. I know Angelina, I'm gross. The other day her little friend was over, lying on the coffee table, moaning that she needed a doctor because she was pregnant. Ava seemed happy enough to play along but I kept wondering, oh God, is this the time she will ask me about what it means to be pregnant? The more questions I ask the more I realize that while I am a lover of letters and words, I'm terrified of the day my daughter puts these big concepts together. Terrified more that I'm letting her down with my nervous hand-wringing about what to say, when, and how.

Last night I was struck by the light on Ava's skin and marveled aloud "My Gosh Ava, you have the most beautiful brown skin in the world." She said thank you. And then I just plundered in like an ox. "And Mommy has peachy, freckly skin." She gave me a no duh look. I tried some more—I'm sorry child that your mother is such a dork—until I said "Isn't that funny?" She didn't seem to particularly think so and finally Tim, who was cooking dinner in the same room, worried that maybe I was leading this conversation in a way that wasn't useful for an almost 3-year-old. To which I gave him a no duh look.

At dinner Ava announced that it was her turn to talk so I asked her what she wanted to talk about. She looked at me and said, in kind of a lame, sing song voice, which is apparently how I sound when trying to talk about adoption, "The color of skin." Oh! Alright, let's do this. I can totally handle this and be a grown up about it too. Psych! "Let's talk about purple nurples," she said. And she promptly gave one to the both of us.

My first try at twists. (This also marked the first time in two years I felt darn near cocky after doing Ava's hair.) They're real, and they're spectacular.

She's spectacular.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My legs, they be creaky

I've got old hamstrings in a young hamstrings game. But I do love training for a marathon. And I'm crazy for a finish line.

This year Papa Dog, training through an IT Band injury, poor thing, and I are going to try to raise some dollars and cents as we gear up for the Austin Marathon on February 20th. We were inspired, as in all things, by the Lion Heart over at The Eyes of my Eyes. Any money raised on behalf of our run will go to Ethiopia Reads, the blanket nonprofit supporting the Tesfa school.

If you can, please consider contributing whatever feels right and comfortable. (Oh hell, even if it hurts a little.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Somebody come over and brush my teeth for me

The child is asleep, the old man is walking the dog, the snow has melted in Texas. There is so much I should be doing right now--I should be transcribing interviews, I should be braving the underside of the bath mat, I should be drinking water. Tim has the Social Network queued up but I think I won't join him on the sofa. Great movie, and yet I felt queasy with tension throughout the first viewing. (Harvard Girls, you get your asses down from that table and go back to your dorm rooms right now. Or at least go out to a gay club where the men know how to dance nice with a lady.) Instead perhaps I'll jigger up my Kindle and get back to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in which the author repeatedly tells me that 46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.

Ava Bekelech is over two and a half years old. How did that happen? How do I suddenly have a child old enough to yell "No ma'am!" when she finds the dog eating cat food? Oh Ava, do stay a tough cookie your whole life.